Drug Resistant Staph Infection May Be An Epidemic in Black Chicago

Today’s Chicago Tribune reported a story about a drug resistant bacteria that seems to be spreading through black communities in Chicago, largely because of prisons, and over-crowding in housing projects. The report on the spread of the bacteria called MRSA comes from a new article published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The Tribune Reports:

MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, a potentially virulent bacteria that doesn’t respond to several antibiotics used to treat common staph infections.

People struck by the bug frequently develop painful skin boils or abscesses and, in rare circumstances, deadly pneumonias, blood infections and other life-threatening conditions….

…Until the late 1990s, MRSA was found exclusively in hospitals. When Chicago researchers reported finding the bacteria in previously healthy, non-hospitalized children in 1998, they were met with disbelief. But after further investigation, it became clear that a new type of superbug, known as community-associated MRSA, had evolved.

According to the story, MRSA was a staph infection most likely found in hospitals. Hospitals, while they try their best (let’s just assume that) to be sterile places, bacteria do live and thrive in hospitals, and people do sometimes catch secondary infections while in the hospital for some other treatment. Somehow, the bacteria has migrated out of the hospital, and has since turned up in Cook County Jail, and then in the largely poor black West Side Chicago neighborhood.

Jails and prisons are horrendous places in general, and they certainly are places where infectious disease are apt to spread–large numbers of people living in close quarters that are often unsanitary, with little access to medical treatment and care.

Housing Projects are horrendous places in general, and they certainly are places where infectious disease are apt to spread–large numbers of people living in close quarters that are often unsanitary, with little access to medical treatment and care.

Am I saying that projects and prison/jails create somewhat similar conditions? Draw your own conclusions.

Also prisons/jails and lack of affordable and adequate housing have made for highly transient urban black populations. And instability /migrations drives the risk of all kinds of infectious disease, including HIV/AIDS. Not enough is made of the highly transient nature of black America, and its link to risk of all kinds of health problems (of which I include inter-community violence–people can act out violently against people for whom they don’t feel any connection or accountability).

The one thing I am a little leery of about this is that according the story, researchers have begun calling this new drug resistant infection “community-associated” MRSA. I understand that it is a new and more potent strain of the bacteria, but something about the phrase “community associated” can take on racial undertones about the nature of the infection, because it is mostly present in blacks.

In addition, the Tribune story refers to it as a “superbug” a term that the news media and health journalists (I think) ought to not be in the business of using. The media started calling the 2005 case of the NYC patient who had a multi-drug resistant (seemingly) rapid progression HIV infection as a “super-strain” or “super-bug” — which a recent article in the Journal of Infectious Disease proved to be a false claim. Though this patient was a white gay male, the media created this “superbug” story–without exercising the proper amount of skepticism, and unneccessarily further stigmatized gay men.

I am currently reading a new book by Harriet A. Washington called Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation On Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Washington has a great analysis of how diseases get racialized that bear some relevance in the danger of labeling things “community associated” and “superbugs.”

7 thoughts on “Drug Resistant Staph Infection May Be An Epidemic in Black Chicago

  1. No doubt that the racializing (and consequential stigmatizing) of the disease dampens any public health measures for prevention or education about the infections…

    First time posting after hearing about your blog. Keep it up! Looking forward to your thoughts on “Medical Apartheid” after you finish reading it.

  2. That’s a really interesting idea, that members of a group that uses the word “community” as a signifier for itself (black community, gay community) would interpret the “community” in CA-MRSA as referring to them – as opposed to the public health meaning of “all the places that are outside the hospital.”

    Obviously something public health types never thought of, and a lesson in the dangers of official language. D’you think it’s likely “community-associated” will be interpreted as stigmatizing? And then what – would a mythology develop around it, similar to rumors of AIDS being aimed at the black community?

  3. Sherman and Maryn –

    Thanks for commenting. I didn’t think anyone was gonna read this post, but I find myself becoming more interested in health issues– especially in how disease risk (espcially STI/HIV) is communicated to racialized and gendered populations.

    I do think something about the phrase “community” has come to connote poor urban and (mostly) black communities. It is the new way to refer to black people without saying “black” or “urban.” I don’t think language phenomenon is about public health, but it is a larger trend in the way people are using the phrase “in the community” in our society. I think that factor may mean that people will interpret that to connote “black-associated” MRSA.

    I am not sure if a mythology will develop around it–i am even uncomfrotable with saying mythology, it’s not as though black people don’t have legitimate historical and contemporary evidence for racism in public health and medicine. But in short, yes. People may suspect the reasons that this infection is prevalent in black communities.

  4. I hate the fact that ignorant people are fostering the belief that MRSA is mostly found in low income areas. The fact is that the bacteria are everywhere and many people carry it in their bodies and are able to resist the complications. I personally have TWO strains of MRSA. I got the first one which looked like “spider bites” after visiting a person in a hospital. I knew nothing about MRSA. I thought I had spider bites. Those took 8 months to recede. Then, the same person I visited, came to my home in 2006 and did NOT tell me he had MRSA in a large open wound on his back…He thanked me for doing some work for his wife. He shook my hand. You know the rest of the story…two days later, my face was full of huge painful red swellings full of big boils. The man is not poor. He contracted MRSA at the hospital. The bacteria are everywhere now…your local grocery store, shared athletic equipment, RICH AND POOR PEOPLE ALIKE are suffering with MRSA. So let’s stop the lies about “poor people and skid row”. Hospital wards are infected with MRSA. Here is how to make the correct solution to kill MRSA bacteria on surfaces: 1/3 hydrogen peroxide (the 3% kind you buy at the pharmacy) 2/3 water. Mix. Add a bit of dry laundry detergent and shake. USE rubber gloves when applying. Put on surface. Let stand a couple of minutes. Rinse off with clean water. THIS will kill MRSA bacteria. Most commercial so-called “antibacterial” products do NOT kill MRSA bacteria. In fact, the bacteria can actually LIVE in most of those products because the solutions are not alkaline enough to kill these resistant bacteria. If you would like to know how I minimize my own MRSA symptoms using all natural foods and products which are cheap and available anywhere, please write to me. I charge $4 for the information as it is very long and detailed. Let us STOP the racist accusations about what is truly an EQUAL OPPORTUNITY disease which has caused the deaths of RICH and POOR, of all colors and nationalities. Get past the racist paranoia. I am white with postgrad degrees. I try to teach everyone how to make their bodies resist these new horrible bacteria. My skin is clear now and my energy has returned. There is no purpose to racial slurs. People of all income brackets and colors and religions need to know how to protect themselves from MRSA. I teach what I have learned the very hard way, through personal experience, trial and error.

  5. Kenyon,
    I’ve been handling a lawsuit where MRSA is involved and have learned quite a bit from the experts retained in that case. I think I have some helpful articles on the topic if you are interested in learning more.

  6. Do you know where I can get a high-res version of this image —
    — which you had on your blog entry of 5/29/07?

    I am editor of a union newspaper that goes to public employees in prisons, jails, mental health centers, etc. We arewilling to pay for it.

    Linc Cohen

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